Oct 292010

While working recently on One Coin One Play, my self-proclaimed greatest compilation of arcade music  ever, I (of course) recorded the music from Sega’s classic arcade hit, Space Harrier. Since the game’s built-in sound test omitted some of the tracks, I had to re-play the game in order to get some of that tasty music. In so doing, I was reminded of what makes a great game and why, among so many other games that do not hold up as one would hope, Space Harrier stands that all-important test of time. If you do not agree, read on and be persuaded. If you are already a Space Harrier convert, by all means reaffirm your faith below!

A legendary game usually has to have impressive graphics or sound, at least for the time when it comes out, and Space Harrier totally did. The game came out in 1985, which in case you didn’t notice, is a long time ago. The state of graphics in games was pretty much what you would see in staples such as Gauntlet, Commando or Rush n’ Attack. Indeed, Sega’s own offerings from that year include Fantasy Zone, which was stylized but not exactly mind-blowing. Onto the field came Space Harrier, sporting simulated super-fast 3D graphics (achieved through scaling sprites, not actual 3D rendering) and dazzling colors set in a imaginative world where every stage has a different look and feel, with enemies ranging from mammoths and floating puffballs to giant polyhedral dice, robots and multiheaded dragons. Space Harrier was, and in many ways still is, graphically mind-blowing. The soundtrack is nothing to sneeze at either, with a 4+ minute main theme (unusually long for its time) and individual music for each boss.

Space Harrier - Floating City

It may not seem like much, but in 1985 we built this city... On AWESOME.

Space Harrier was also tough. Of its 18 levels, only the first one or two were gimmes. After that, you’re in for it. As mentioned before, the game moves fast. That’s great for impressive graphics, but it also makes for a hard experience. Enemies (including indestructible ones) zip toward you at blazing speed and projectiles heading in your direction sometimes give you about a quarter of a second to react and move. In typical fashion for the time, it’s one-hit-and-you-die. With just three lives, it’s extremely likely you’ll need a lot of play before you master the game.

Space Harrier also introduced or heavily reinforced gameplay conventions. On your journey you’ll travel through icy lands, deserts and a futuristic world complete with a floating city-thing. In fact, all Space Harrier is missing is a fire/volcano stage in order to run the gamut of what would now be considered stereotypical–except that they weren’t tired and played out then. Its bosses, while all relying upon hitting you with things in order to kill you, otherwise display variety and set up the archetypes for many bosses to come in future games. Also–and this seems to be impossible to verify–but it appears that Space Harrier is the first game to feature a rush succession of bosses faced in prior stages.

In short, if you have never experienced the wild thrill of Space Harrier and are a fan of any sort of fast-paced gaming, you should play it. Emulation through MAME is a possibility (and allows for cheating if you’re down with that), but nothing beats taking on the game with an actual arcade screen. You might be able to find a Ground Kontrol-esque location in your area (although even they don’t currently have it.) One way or another, give this a try and I bet you’ll agree that after 25 years, it still has what it takes.

Oct 232010

In the absence of an actual definition after what appears to be hundreds of years of use, I am now going to lay down here for record the definition of the term “vast majority.”

Henceforth, “vast majority” shall refer to at least the halfway point between the majority and the complete totality of any given population of people or items.

Since “majority” can be defined as anything more than half (including 50.000000001% or even tinier fractions exceeding 50%) for the sake of casual use, 75% shall be the acceptable minimum for a vast majority, even though technically it should be 75% plus some at least miniscule amount.

This is not a game-related post (look for one of those this weekend), but it’s important for the world and in years to come I may have to refer back to this when I assert my place as the Father of Vast Majoritism.

Aug 312010

Microsoft recently announced an increase in the cost of XBox Live. The change amounts to somewhere between a 20% and 25% increase, depending on what method you buy your subscription in. Expectedly, reaction has been very unfavorable, despite the statement from Microsoft that the price has held steady since 2002. In droves, people seem to ask, “What do I get for my additional $10?” (as most are assumed to be buying in the most efficient manner, the year’s subscription.)

The response those people actually deserve is, “nothing.” Microsoft’s answer in this respect doesn’t really matter, due to one simple thing that people don’t seem to even consider: inflation. I’ve only been a Live member for three years, so I can’t say what the price was back in 2002, but I’ll take their word for it. There are any number of sites online, such as this one, this one or this one which show that, during the time period from 2002 to 2010, inflation has increased approximately 22%. Microsoft’s adjustment of the Live pricing is completely in-line with normal inflation to keep the price:cost ratio as-is. The addition of any new features or components is gravy. Indeed, one has to assume that with the vastly increased prominence of online gaming since 2002 when the Dreamcast was still fresh in peoples’ minds, Microsoft’s expenses for setting up and maintaining a robust online system would be marginally increased even above the break-even point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as upset as anyone else about 1 vs. 100 being canceled, but like other things that go away, it was first added to the service with no increase in cost; removing features that have been added for free is not stealing as some would have you think; the removal of items that you weren’t charged extra for when they were added does not mean the price of a service should go down nor should it stop increasing as everything else does. When the cost of bread invariably goes up a quarter, do people ask the baker if that increase in price will come with a commensurate increase in sesame seeds on the loaf? I really hope that answer is no.

What’s more, for the past 7 years, inflation has been creeping up and the service waited this long for a price increase. There would have been justification for a $7.50 price increase in 2007, 5 years after the launch of the service, but Microsoft held for another three years. When you consider the inflationary increases alone, anyone who has been a member since 2002 basically could have paid an extra $51–the cost of an entire year’s service–over that time if things were adjusted.

This sort of reaction isn’t new. Gamers have, without consideration of economics or past history, balked at each generation’s increase in game prices, even when that increase isn’t really an increase at all. The $50 cost for Playstation and Saturn games was called a rip-off by many, only abating somewhat when that price point held into the Dreamcast/PS2/XBox generation. The rallying cry was raised again when the general price for PS3 and 360 games became $60. People forget that back in the days of the Atari 2600, higher profile games fetched $30, new NES games often listed for $35-40 and during the days of the SNES they could range from $50-60 with some (i.e., Chrono Trigger) brushing up against $70. But it’s easy to just decry the industry as soulless money-grubbers because they raise prices — as if they were extorting people into buying lifesaving medicines instead of offering them a luxury hobby. (Mind you, some companies probably are just that, but this isn’t the place for name-calling.)

By the way, those still with an axe to grind about price increases may want to dust off that time machine and go back to yell at the 8- and 16-bit eras. Those prices for the Atari 2600 ($30) from 1981 (the year Space Invaders came out), NES ($40) from 1988 (Super Mario Bros. 3) and SNES ($50) from 1994 (Super Metroid), adjusted for today’s inflation, come out to $71, $73 and $73, respectively, all at least $10 more than the price of current blockbusters like Dragon Age, Call of Duty, Rock Band or God of War, games that have mip-mapping, light-shading , corticular scaling (okay, I made that one up) and often provide dozens of hours of gameplay. Those games from way-back-when were fantastic and worth the money (which is why I own them all and hundreds of others), but they were more expensive, comparatively, than games are now. Keep that in mind when, inevitably, prices for games on the PS4 and XBox 720 (for lack of more original names) come out at $69.99.

Aug 262010

I’m looking forward to Fallout: New Vegas. This should be no surprise to anyone who knows me, considering how much time I spent in Fallout 3 and how much I dig the whole post-nuclear-war milieu. Certainly the new game will play a great deal like its predecessor, being a first-person shooter/RPG mix, and I’m sure I’m going to enjoy it., but it would be dishonest to say that it feels like something’s missing. No, not awesome combat with detailed character models and morally ambiguous choices not addictive “one more level” gameplay nor good acting and writing…

It’s the radiation.

Fallout, by its very nature, is a series set in a post-nuke world. It’s been that way since the days of Wasteland (one of the greatest RPGs ever created), which Interplay developed back in the day and served as an inspiration if not direct descendant of the original Fallout games. Wasteland’s geographic setting was the border between Arizona and Nevada and many of their surrounding areas. New Vegas as indicated by the name, is set in Nevada, but Bethesda indicates that the area has been spared from bombings, which has led to a change in the environment, surviving technology and all of that.

How can you put Fallout in an area without the effects of nuclear holocaust? It’s the iconic setting for the series. That would be like, like making a Bioshock game and then saying it’s not going to be set underwater or something. Oh, wait.

Aug 132010

I tweeted a while back that the world needed the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World video game. Having played the demo on the PS3 (waiting for it to hit the 360 on August 24 before buying), I stand by that statement. This game has the potential to almost single-handedly resurrect what is, for all intents and purposes, a dead genre: the beat-em-up.

Those not familiar with this kind of game make me sad, and I’m hoping that you’re just a figment of my imagination; but in case you’re not, the beat-em-up is a game that revolves around one concept: kick the crap out of everyone in your path in order to accomplish the goal. Traditionally, these goals are saving someone, whether it’s the president, your girlfriend or maybe even a bunch of kidnapped women. Sometimes you got to achieve complex goals like saving a school and your girlfriend at the same time but generally that was too complex of a storyline for the desired game experience.

Scott Pilgrim is all of the great things about old-school beat-em-ups whipped into one frothy mass of violence. Judging from screenshots, reviews and the first level demo, it’s a mysterious alloy composed of 78% River City Ransom, 7% Double Dragon, and 2% or less of other games like Streets of Rage, Vigilante and even Super Mario Bros. 3 . It takes the gameplay elements of those older days and combines them with modern processing power in terms of framerate and soundtrack. You can use virtually anything as a weapon (including downed enemies that can you can pick up and whack other enemies with); the gameplay is hard, sometimes to the point of brutal; beaten foes drop money that you use to buy food or items to restore life and increase stats; and the game takes none of this too seriously.

What things like Golden Axe and Final Fight failed to do when offered as downloadable games was to excite modern gamers. (You can observe this by the ability to get online games — a mere two weeks after Capcom’s release of Final Fight Double Impact, online games were scarce.) Scott Pilgrim has a chance to do that, being released around the same time as a movie based on the book, which has only just recently concluded. It’s fast, flashy (featuring colorful old-school inspired graphics and a killer soundtrack from Anamanaguschi), addictive and deep for a brawler. Those who never experienced the pleasure of beating a few hundred people unconscious with their virtual fists might enjoy the game enough to look up other games like it, which could re-ignite interest in the genre.

Who knows? Scott Pilgrim could be the Double Dragon of this era, grandfathering in a new wave of take-it-to-the-streets action. Only time will tell, but as a gamer, you owe it to yourself to at least try this one. And then go dig up that ROM or cartridge of River City Ransom and enjoy an afternoon of smacking people around until they yell “BARF!” and drop just enough change for you to go buy that Grand Slam technique book. Isn’t that what gaming is all about?

Jul 142010

When Castlevania: Harmony of Despair [CHoD–not to be confused with Ch’od of the Starjammers] was announced, I was totally psyched. A Symphony of the Night [SotN] styled game on the 360? Featuring multiplayer? And characters from past SotN-type games? Where do I sign up?

That was then. Thankfully, they didn’t release the game that day, or I would have been, as they say, all over that. Konami has since revealed more details of the game. Saddening details. First, and potentially worst, there will be no character leveling. Yes, that’s correct–you will be playing a game in the vein of SotN, but unlike that game and so many handheld successors, your character will not get stronger with continued play. There are items to find and equip but there’s no information on how much influence they will have

Second, areas of the castle are not contiguously linked; CHoD is a number of unrelated levels (six, it sounds like), and the goal of each appears to be madly dashing toward a boss located in a set spot and defeating it, all in the shortest time possible. Apart from potentially looking for enemies to kill for equipment, this removes the impetus for exploration, save perhaps for trying to chart a shorter path.

And even if you want to disregard that goal and delve into CHoD’s depths, it seems you’ll be severely curtailed by how long you can spend. Each level is timed. Videos have shown limits of 10, 20 and 30 minutes so far. I’ll grant that 30 minutes is pretty leisurely compared to what we would have seen back in the NES days, but still, I don’t think we’ve had a time limit in a new Castlevania game (discounting re-releases of older games like Dracula X Chronicles) in over 15 years.

I’m not bothered by the blatant reuse of sprites and art from half a dozen already-released Castlevania games, nor the lack of new characters — if Konami wants to put out a “best of” Castlevania megagame featuring elements from each, I’m all for that. Unfortunately, this looks to be more a collection of speed-run maps with a style more Capture the Flag than Castlevania. I wouldn’t mind being wrong, though.